Guinea Pigs: The Starter Pet

When I was 9, I tried—unsuccessfully—to convince my parents to buy me a puppy. The fish had died off one by one, and the frogs committed suicide by literally jumping out of the tank (it was a long way down). They didn’t seem like real pets anyway, not something you could really love or teach tricks. I was eager for the next step, and to prove it, I compiled a list of reasons why I was ready for a puppy. After reading my manifesto, my parents came back with an unexpected counteroffer: a guinea pig. Not as good as a dog, a bit of a starter pet maybe, but it was a step in the right direction. As I toyed with the suggestion, my younger sister, Dana, asked the question that would seal the deal: “Can we both have one?” My parents looked at each other and slowly nodded. Two pets! I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this.

At the pet store that weekend, Dana and I spent 40 minutes debating the character traits of guinea pigs. We are different, and this was apparent even in our choice of rodents. I chose a feisty, brown, white, and black long-haired one that I named Spence, while my sister went with the more docile short-haired one that looked like a rat. She called him Broccoli. The only characteristic my parents were interested in was that Broccoli and Spence were both male—which they confirmed with the owner—and so we took our new charges home. I was elated: I had scored my first pet with hair.

Over the next few months, Spence and Broccoli took up the majority of our time. They couldn’t play dead or shake hands, but we enjoyed dressing them in Barbie clothes, having them compete in races, and feeding them their favorite snack, lettuce, often­—so often that the moment they heard the opening of the refrigerator door, they made an excited whistle-like sound in anticipation.

When we noticed that Broccoli looked chunky, we cut down on the snacks—even too much lettuce can cause weight gain—but he kept getting bigger. We soon discovered that Broccoli was not just getting fat, but rather “he” was a very pregnant “she.” Dana and I watched the birth, and we were thrilled at our new additions. My parents, not so much. We gave the babies away, bringing our guinea pig family of four back down to two.

My parents separated Spence and Broccoli, forcing them to live in different cages, and forbade us from uniting the star-crossed guinea pigs. For their part, Spence and Broccoli exchanged longing looks and kissed through the metal-wired gates. We were stuck in the middle: We knew they were destined to be together, and it was killing them—well, killing us—to see them apart.

Guinea pig wearing a hat and carrying a rose in his teeth
Illustrated by Katherin Streeter

So one evening while my parents were out, the babysitter asleep on the couch, my sister and I saw our chance to orchestrate a reunion. We put Spence in Broccoli’s cage, and they ran toward each other, as fast as guinea pigs can run, which, sadly, is not very fast. But still, it was an emotional reunion. We had no idea how emotional until about two months later, when we were blessed with three more guinea pig babies. My parents were not amused.

After the birth of the triplets, my parents began to realize that our starter pets were probably more work than having a dog. The two cages took up a large space in our living room and needed constant cleaning, as did the area directly around the cages (guinea pigs do not have the best aim).

On my 10th birthday, my parents surprised me with Comet, a cocker spaniel puppy. Dana and I were ecstatic. We’d grown a little bored of Spence and Broccoli and their inability to fetch a ball or catch a stick in their mouths. They were relocated to the basement until we found them a new home.

I forgot all about them, until a few years ago, when I was going through some files and found a picture of our old pals. They were sitting on a Barbie bed eating lettuce with, I like to think, the hint of a smile on their furry faces. I was filled with a renewed appreciation for everything they taught us about caring for a pet. Broccoli and Spence are long gone now, but if there’s an animal heaven, I’m sure they’re in it. And they’re not in separate cages.